Dogs Live in Hierarchies
Canine societies are built on a hierarchy. There is a predominant leader and a succession of subordinates. The hierarchy is not always, and is often not, linear and progressive. It is very possible for individual A to be dominant over individual B and for individual B to be dominant over individual C. But is also possible for individual C to be dominant over individual B if individual A is not present. So, the hierarchy is determined in part by who is and is not present. This is very important to us in raising companion animals in that we must be aware of each individual family member’s relationship with the dog. One person cannot be the “leader” and take control for all family members. What happens when the “leader” is not present? Each family member must establish a leadership position with the dog if there is to be comfort with all family members.
The relationship of dominant to subordinate individuals is also greatly based on communication. It is often thought that the dominance is taken and held by force alone. This is not true. Although force has a place in taking dominance, so does the ability to communicate and gesture. If dogs or wolves were consistently fighting to determine their position within the pack, there would be little time or energy left for hunting, breeding, defense of territory or rest. They would all be too injured and tired to maintain daily necessities. Each individual born into the society begins learning a communal language almost immediately. This allows them to understand and communicate.
Four Levels of Communication
In communal living species like dogs, there are basically four levels of communication. The two outer levels are aggression and fear. Aggression is used to secure food through hunting and in communication with other individuals. Fear is a retreat, moving away from a real or assumed threat. The inner levels of communication include dominance gesturing and submissive gesturing.
Through gesturing, individuals can negotiate their position and their intent with each other. Taking dominance is not, as mentioned earlier, simply overpowering the lesser. The lesser must choose to defer to the dominant individual. If one individual displays a behavior that another individual then deems worthy of challenge, that individual will begin communication with a gesture (such as a look or a snarl). If the challenger gestures appropriately (looking away, tucking his tail, lowering himself to the ground), the point has been made. The lesser has chosen to defer and not challenge further. However, if the challenger does not defer the gesturing will increase in intensity (aggression) and will continue to do so until one is either killed, injured beyond the ability to continue, or else chooses to defer and displays the appropriate gestures.
Keep in mind that no matter how aggressive and how strong the attack, for the challenge to end in mutually agreed upon dominant/subordinate relationships, one individual must choose to back down, thereby allowing the other to be dominant.
Understand What Motivates Your Dog
This is important to us as dog owners since we place much too much attention on trying to overpower our dogs through force and punitive training devices. The dog may choose to back down in fear of continued aversive displays but the use of such control in itself will not teach a willing, eager and attentive response. The challenge to any good animal trainer then is in understanding what is an important or gainful reinforcement to each individual animal and then controlling that paycheck and offering that gain for specific behaviors and/or attitudes that match the trainer’s desires. By understanding and becoming artful in the game of negotiation, it is possible to train/control the largest and fiercest of animals mentally and without force. In a wild dog or wolf pack, deferring not only benefits the individual by the lack of further injury but also in gaining the protection from the pack, territorial security and an improved ability to find food.
Dogs are concerned with four specific resources of gain or control. These include food, territory, grooming (petting as well as grooming), and play/possession. He who controls these resources controls the “pack.”
Deferring: Mixed Signals
It is important that we as dog owners become aware of the many ways and times that we defer to our dog’s desires. Through training, we try to force our dogs to defer. Then often in everyday life situations, we defer to our dogs. A dog may have a perfect “sit stay” but the owner will tell us that “he just won’t stay off the couch, so I just let him get up there whenever he wants now.” This gives mixed signals that may (and often do) cause confusion, frustration and possibly an increase in anxiety/aggression. We all know how difficult it is to communicate with someone who gives mixed signals. This can happen in different ways. The attitude may be aggressive, anxious or fearful as they are trying to guide us or offer us gain. Now we must choose to trust in their intent (not their signals) if we are to benefit. It is difficult to be in a situation where you’re told one thing and then expected to do something else or if the meaning of the instruction keeps changing.
Leadership & Boundaries
As a pack-living species, dogs (just like humans) need consistent leadership, boundaries and clear, constructive communication. Just as it is with humans, in animal societies it is difficult to be the leader. Leadership comes with constant challenges and great responsibility. Think then how difficult it must be for your dog to be allowed to lead, even in part, a human society. Just as we need and want leadership and boundaries, so do our dogs. We are all aware of what happens when children or even adults do not have proper structure, leadership and constructive communication. These individuals develop emotional and behavioral difficulties. Depending on personality type, active or passive, these individuals may turn to drugs, sex, gang involvement or even violence against themselves, their family, or their community.
An Example of Animal Leadership
An occurrence in Africa a number of years ago illustrates this point. A game preserve that harbored an elephant herd found it to be getting too large. The normal remedy for this situation is to kill part of the herd. But in this situation, they decided to take the teenagers from the herd and place them in a new protective environment that had just become available. Shortly after this move, the game wardens found that endangered rhinoceroses were dying. It was evident that poaching and disease were not the cause. Upon further investigation, they found that the teenage elephants, unguided by the boundaries and discipline of their elders, began functioning like a gang. Their actions were as remarkably similar to human gang intimidation as another species can display without weapons. The wardens then imported a number of elder and younger elephants from the original herd. Once a proper hierarchy was re-established, the problem ceased.
For a community to work, each member must develop a sense of self-control and individual boundaries. It is an interesting balance of mutual support that society as a whole sets, with structure and boundaries that teach each individual a sense of self-control and self- limitations. But it is all the individuals that set the structure and boundaries for the community as one.
Read about Leadership.
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“Linda is amazing, both as a trainer and a person. Her knowledge base is unrivaled, as is her ability to translate this knowledge into helpful, usable suggestions for her clients. Her training classes not only support her clients, but also their dogs. Her classes enrich and strengthen the vital trust relationship between dog and owner. This step is missed by many less-experienced trainers. Dogs walk away from her classes with a stronger sense of self control, and composure. Clients walk away from her classes with a better understanding of their beloved canine companions, and a more fulfilling, comfortable relationship with their dogs.”
– Amy Fellner, Certified Veterinary Technician
Veterinary Behavior Technician